The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

by Howard Scott Rating:10 Release Date:1967-05-26
The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

When the opportunity presented itself to review what many consider to be the best rock album of all time, The Beatles’ ”Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” a mere fifty one and a half years after its initial release, I have to admit to a bit of hesitation. After all, what can further be written about an album that set the world on fire during 1967’s “Summer of Love” that hasn’t already found its way into print? If all the words written about this album were collected in one place, it would make Tolstoy’s epic “War and Peace” look like a pamphlet in comparison.

Sure, I could go through each song, pointing out who wrote it, what instrumentation was on it and what part each plays in the eternal Beatles lore.

I could also detail the new and experimental recording techniques used to put the sound on vinyl, but again, it would be a rehash of stuff darn near everybody knows. At this point, there isn’t a single note on this album that hasn’t been examined, analyzed, argued over and discussed ad infinitum. If Lennon had burped in the middle of “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds”, someone would have issued a multiple page report by now explaining what he must have had for lunch that caused such an eruption.

In the end, however, it was a pair of casual comments I had heard lately that made me accept the challenge. First, it was mentioned to me that the album “hasn't aged well” over the years. Then a family member told me in casual conversation that “Sgt. Peppers” was probably their least favorite of all Beatle albums. I found both of these statements somewhat stunning.

As I have mentioned before (See review of “All Things Must Pass”), I am a full-fledged veteran of Beatlemania, and hold them in high regard for introducing me to rock and roll when I was all of about eight years old. My youth was spent eagerly awaiting the next release from Liverpool’s four ambassadors to the world, and it was pretty late in the game before they disappointed. In order to fully appreciate “Sgt. Pepper” for what it was and what it continues to be, I think you have to put the album into the context of the time when it was created.

It has always been a theory of mine (and people smarter than me) that The Beatles instant rise to insane levels of popularity in the United States had a lot to do with the timing. The country had been in a months-long period of mourning after the murder of its young President, John Kennedy, and the sudden outburst of good music, cheeky personality and mostly happy lyrics that The Beatles suddenly provided helped snap us all out of it. Here was something to celebrate, and celebrate them we did. For the next two years, their musical formula stayed fairly consistent and two popular motion pictures kept them front and center in a pre-internet entertainment world.

By 1966, things were changing. Young people in the US were rising up to protest the draft, the war, their civil rights, and a political system that seemed to pay them no mind. Popular music was taking a more active role in this dissent, and tastes were changing. Use of recreational drugs like marijuana, amphetamines, and hallucinogens was also on the rise, and the happy go lucky tunes of “Meet the Beatles”  were quickly being left behind. At about the same time, John, Paul, George, and Ringo were also dabbling in pot and acid, and the music morphed into a completely new phase.

It started with “Revolver”. Gone were the basic lyrics of “Love Me Do”, to be replaced by George complaining about his taxes, John telling us he knew what it was like to be dead, and Paul penning less cheerful songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One”. The psychedelic tone of “Tomorrow Never Knows” gave everyone a taste of what was coming, we just didn’t know it yet.

In order to try and stay on the same playing field as the Beatles, Brian Wilson reacted to “Revolver” by taking The Beach Boys into uncharted territory with “Pet Sounds”. In a high stakes game of tit-for-tat, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” was in large part The Beatles' response, and we all ended up richer for it. Two of the top examples of rock music composition were released within a year of each other, and that doesn’t happen very often.

The middle months of 1967 were to be the “Summer of Love” as a direct reaction to the rioting and unrest the country was suffering. Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco was the ground zero for this communal, love thy neighbor attitude that was heavily fueled with drugs too numerous to mention. Into this pharmaceutically enhanced mindset dropped "Sgt. Pepper's".

To fully appreciate just how revolutionary this recording was, it helps to have lived through the time period. The sound was beyond new. It was like a reinvention of music. Sounds came from our speakers that we had never imagined, let alone heard. Yes, we had absorbed the theremin fueled “Good Vibrations”, released the previous autumn, but the ethereal sound of Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” ( and “Tomorrow Never Knows”) darn near invented what would later be termed "psychedelic" music. “Within You, Without You” introduced us to Indian styles, the sitar and a George Harrison who suddenly wasn’t The Quiet One anymore.  Ringo contributed rhythms that gave all other rock pounders cause to pause, and his vocal on “A Little Help From My Friends” is arguably his best with The Beatles.

Up to this point, The Beatles had been John Lennon’s band. From the days of The Quarrymen, there was little debate in the band, or anywhere else, who was in charge. That began to change with “Sgt. Peppers” and it changed the trajectory of the band from then on. Lennon was deep in depression, deeper yet into pot and acid, and unhappy over his domestic situation. Whether consciously or not, McCartney began to assert himself into the production of the album, and the change was evidenced by eight of the 13 tunes being mostly his work. What many consider his best song ever, “She’s Leaving Home”  found Paul returning to the heavily stringed musicin the style of “Yesterday”, but he also added a  lyric of deep emotional substance that he was sometimes accused of lacking the ability to produce.

The same band that just 36 months prior had been singing "She Loves You" was now producing "A Day In the Life". The maturation and almost complete re-invention they accomplished was hard to comprehend and has seldom been duplicated.

Yes, there were clunkers on the album.  I thought for years afterward John Lennon must have awoken in the night screaming that his name was on “When I’m Sixty Four”, that he called Paul’s “granny music” through gritted teeth.  On the other hand, John’s “Good Morning, Good Morning” was a disjointed collage of animal sound effects inspired by a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial. It is a great irony that two of each writer’s best work, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were released as a double-A-side single before the album came out, and therefore weren’t included on the track list. Imagine if they had replaced the previously mentioned weakest links.  No less an authority than George Martin called it the biggest mistake of his career that the twin classics were allowed to precede the album’s release.

One more fact of history that must be mentioned is that The Beatles made “Sgt. Peppers”, with all its warts and flourishes, before electronic music really existed. The Moog synthesizer was just becoming known in the music world, but almost nobody knew how to make the thing work. The Beatles used its distant cousin, the Mellotron, heavily on the record, but large orchestral additions had to be played by a real orchestra, such as on the album’s crowning achievement, the previously mentioned “A Day In the Life”. In a modern age where an artist can record and produce an album single-handedly from a broom closet while using one hand to operate a keyboard and the other to cut his toenails, just how much thought, production, and talent went into making "Sgt. Peppers" is easy to overlook.

So, has the album aged well. Maybe not, but to a large degree, I think it is comparing apples to oranges. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was created on a four-track tape recorder, in a cavernous studio ill-equipped for the kind of experimentation that is commonplace today. The influence it had on the music that came after alone is reason to give it the lofty ratings it usually gets.

As I mentioned to someone less than impressed with the album at this late date, a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO is probably dated, since a decently tuned Honda Civic can outrun it, out handle it and get MUCH better mileage, but which would you rather have in your garage? The Mona Lisa could probably be created on one of any number of computer art programs, without a paint brush ever being touched, but does that make the original any less wondrous?

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